A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life – The Leeds Library

Actually, the Leeds Library is my luxury!

I signed up to join The Leeds Library on 5 March 2008 and have never looked back. In fact I don’t know why I didn’t do so decades ago but there were several reasons for this. Membership was a bit more restricted in the old days, one had to buy shares. I thought I would never manage to get into Leeds every week or so. And I thought it would be outrageously expensive. But it’s turned out that none of those reasons apply now.

Each time I push the door open I enter a paradise – the smell, the smiles of the counter staff, the walls and walls of books, the lovely solid polished library furniture all combine to give me the most uplifting feeling imaginable. And I’m there almost every week.

I think there are rules but I have not yet fallen foul of them. I currently have 15 books on loan one of which is a 12 week loan and has been renewed 13 times! If another borrower requests it I’ll take it back straight away but I need time to read these huge tomes – there’s a time and a place for Orlando Figes’ ‘Natasha’s Dance’ and Edna Healey’s ‘Coutts & Co.: a portrait of  a private bank’. I’m still working my way through the 8 times renewed ‘Queen Mary’. I have another 2 books brought up from the depths of the basement stack especially for me: Joanna Cannan’s ‘Little I understood’ and Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Queen’s Twin and other stories’. Waiting patiently to be read are some brand new books (Jane Brown’s ‘The omnipotent magician’ and ‘The Maids of La Rochelle’ by Elinor Brent-Dyer) which I’m the first person to borrow. I have several other books, taken straight from the shelves, (‘Pushkin’s Button’ by Serena Vitale, ‘A literary pilgrim’ by Edward Thomas) or the waiting list has finally got down to me (‘We are Besieged’ by Barbara Fitzgerald, ‘Hidden Treasures of England’ by Michael McNay).

In addition to books we can borrow magazines and DVDs. I’m on the list for The New Yorker which has at least one long article well worth reading alongside a couple of shorter ones and I absolutely love the cartoons. On the back page there is a competition – a new cartoon with no caption, a cartoon with 3 selected captions for readers to vote for and finally the winning caption with its cartoon. Never a dud! The other weekly magazine I’m on the list for is Country Life. This is because they often feature old houses, buildings, gardens and sometimes Landmark Trust properties. It’s almost as entertaining looking at the property pages in Country Life as it is studying the cartoons in the New Yorker!

Who needs Lovefilm? I don’t. On Friday I will be returning ‘Mildred Pierce’. Over the years I’ve caught up with missed TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’, ‘Any human heart’ and the complete ‘Pallisers’ and I see from my Reservations List that ‘Daniel Deronda’ is waiting for me to enjoy on a winter evening next week. Now how civilised is that?

Leighton House in Kensington.

Today I met up with my sister and friend and visited Leighton House in Kensington. It was a beautiful day – unseasonably warm – and we met at Holland Park Tube Station. It’s short walk from there to Holland Park itself. Once inside the park you could be miles away from the busy metropolis that is central London. It was easy to forget that we were only just in Zone 2!

There’s a modern cafe in the middle of the park and it was here that we stopped for coffee (or, in my case, tea) and a chat before heading to the house.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830 – 1896), was born in Scarborough, my favourite Yorkshire seaside resort. His father was a doctor and so was his grandfather. In fact his grandfather was primary physician to the Russian royal family in St Petersburg. He amassed a large fortune and because of this Leighton was cushioned for the rest of his life. Although his parents were unhappy with his choice of career they agreed to it and expected him to become “eminent in art”. His successes were many – not least that Queen Victoria bought his first major painting and in 1878 he was appointed President of the Royal Academy. On his death his sisters ensured that the house was left to the nation, or at least to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

As usual no photography is allowed in the house. You enter a huge staircase hall, narcissus hall and the fabulous Arab hall. Leighton was a consummate collector of things Middle Eastern – tiles, textiles, ceramics, woodwork and other crafts collected on his travels – and art – from paintings by  Corot and Tintoretto to his contemporaries G. F. Watts, John Everett Millais and William de Morgan. Despite all the oriental artefacts the house struck me as rather spare and un-Victorian. There’s a lovely big garden at the back but it’s closed in winter. I noticed that they also plan some entertaining events. There’s an Operatic Evening and a Carol Singing evening coming up in December.

For lunch we headed down High Street Kensington to Whole Foods Market where Thanksgiving was in full swing!

Not The Last of the Duchess

My interest in the Windsors dates back to earlier this year when I stayed at their weekend retreat near Paris, now handily converted for self-catering holidays by the Landmark Trust. Back in the spring I read this book and the biography by Michael Bloch “The Duchess of Windsor”, and the one by Hugo Vickers “Behind Closed Doors: the Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor” and then most recently Anne Sebba’s new biography “That Woman”. The authors of each book, it seemed to me, had an agenda and I still feel I am nowhere nearer knowing what the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were really like. Of course we can never ever know for sure!

Reading the last sentences I realise that all my reading has concentrated on Wallis and not so much on Edward. I need to address that. I’m currently reading James Pope-Hennessy’s life of Queen Mary which will go a little way to adjust the balance. I think perhaps the library can help too!

Last evening the Duchess was the main subject of the play I went to see at the Hampstead Theatre. This was a performance of the world premiere of “The Last of the Duchess” adapted by Nicholas Wright but based closely on Blackwood’s book.

I booked tickets when I came upon a link to it by chance via Google. At the time I was searching for more information about Lady Caroline Blackwood, the author of the book I had just read, back in May or June this year. At the time there was no inkling as to the cast but I knew that I wanted to see it. And anyway the theatre is just steps away from my elder son’s flat.

The casting was inspired. Sheila Hancock played, as if she were a Frenchwoman herself, the role of Maitre Blum, the Duchess’s Parisian lawyer. Her accent, her French, her dress and demeanor all had that je ne sais quoi of Parisian style that is so hard for Englishwomen to replicate. Of course, that meant that Caroline Blackwood , played so wonderfully by Anna Chancellor, would be the antithesis of the smart, immaculate, maybe teetotal, Blum. There were touches of humour throughout but the major protagonist of act two was Lady Diana Mosley who was played magnificently by Angela Thorne (great buddy of Penelope Keith in TV’s To The Manor Born). Mosley was a Mitford sister and close friend of the Duchess. At this period in her life she was profoundly deaf and forbidden by butler Georges, on instructions from Blum, to see her dear friend.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1367933/Wallis-Simpson-Robbed-abused-Duchess-Windsors-days.html

Photo from Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1367933/Wallis-Simpson-Robbed-abused-Duchess-Windsors-days.html)

The setting is the house in the Bois de Boulogne leased to the Duke and Duchess by the City of Paris. The Duke has died some time before and the Duchess appears briefly at the beginning of the first act, in a kind of dream of Blackwood’s. That is the Last we see of her. From then on she is upstairs helpless in her bed as the arguments and contretemps continue below. Lady Caroline, thrice married  journalist, has come to Paris to interview the Duchess but Blum will have none of it. There’s a suggestion that Lord Snowdon has been appointed to take her photograph. This Blum forbids but somehow as a kind of bribe she manages to arrange her own photo shoot with Snowdon. This takes place offstage during the second act. In the final act Blum coolly responds to every accusation of Blackwood’s as she herself becomes more and more intoxicated. I came away from the play with the same feeling of uncertainty as after reading the book. Was Blum a consummate liar and villain or was she, in some strange way honestly  protecting the Duchess from exploitation?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/8851278/The-Last-of-the-Duchess-Hampstead-Theatre-review.html

As it turns out, in the end, it is almost the last of Lady Blackwood. She died only months after the publication of her book whereas the Duchess of Windsor was to live for a further 12 years.

I love Lucy! A Cavalier at Bolsover Castle

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I’m really looking forward to reading this book. But it won’t be until the new year as I have a number of others to get through before I start on Lucy Worsley‘s ‘Cavalier: a story of chivalry, passion and great houses‘. I heard Ms Worsley speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August this year. But even before that I was a fan of her  ‘If Walls Could Talk’ shown on BBC television in the spring. In this fab programme the lovely Lucy trots around our modern day homes pointing out all the historical details and stories of the evolution of our bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms and kitchens from the earliest times until the present day. She even volunteered to dress up and play various roles in order to represent to us the differences between previous generations and our own.

For many years Lucy Worsley (she is now Chief Curator of The Historic Royal Palaces) was based at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire and over ten years she researched the story of William Cavendish and his family and the result is ‘Cavalier’.

Bolsover Castle itself isn’t really that far away from me – about 60miles south straight down the M1 motorway.

First,  forget the idea of castle. Seen from the M1 Bolsover may look like a fortress but it is rather a fairytale palace on a hill” says Simon Jenkins in one of my ‘bibles’ “England’s thousand best houses“. As you can see we chose a very atmospheric day to take a trip to Bolsover and give it the once over. The fog should have lifted but try as it might the sun just could not get through all day.

The Riding House from the Shoeing House – complete with cardboard cavalier!

After the obligatory cup of tea in a very nicely appointed cafe and a quick glance round the English Heritage gift shop we switched on our audio guides and made our way falteringly towards the castle itself, stopping every so often to listen to the character actors and narrator tell us more about Bolsover and its creator and inhabitants. Once through the huge entrance gate (or tradesman’s entrance as it was called on the audio guide) you’re in an impressive courtyard.

The Riding House

The first building on the left is called The Riding House Range and it contains “the finest surviving example in England of this rare, specialised type of building” (Bolsover Castle guidebook, also written by Lucy Worsley). Like the famous act by the white stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna this huge room was for training horses in the art of  “manege”  (circling, leaping, jumping). William Cavendish, 1593-1676) was the cavalier responsible for the greatest part of the building and development of the site at Bolsover. He had two obsessions – women and horses – and Bolsover was his “pleasure dome”.

The great oak roof of the Riding House

In the stables is an exhibition about the history of Bolsover and its place in English history, an excellent 15 min. video about The Little Castle and even a large model of it. We seemed to gain enough information from this room to make the audio guides superfluous.

Walk-in model of the Little Castle in the Stable

A walk around the Terrace Range, (with all the usual appointments of chambers and kitchens etc) and from where we should have had (but for the persistent fog) a long-ranging view over the valley and down towards nearby Hardwick Hall, lead us quickly to the romantic Little Castle itself.

Terrace Range and approach to The Little Castle

Here we saw for ourselves the incredibly preserved and restored artwork: the Pillar Parlour, the Star Chamber, the Marble Closet, the Bedchamber, Heaven and Elysium. This final chamber with elaborately decorated panelling depicting the heaven of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece appropriately overlooks the garden and its Fountain of Venus.

Bolsover, I’ll be back on a sunny day to walk the terrace, admire the view, picnic in the gardens and relax in full view of your Venus fountain!

Weekday Wanderers

Since November 2004 I have been a member a very informal, friendly, local walking group. I was reminded of this date earlier today as the beginning of the walk followed exactly the same route. We meet on Thursdays (usually the third Thursday in the month) and take ourselves off for a hike – come rain or shine. But we definitely prefer shine, of course. At 9am on the appointed day we assemble at a local church car park, decide who will drive and car share appropriately. We take it in turns to lead and plan the walk which is usually 8+ miles. Today’s walk was a little shorter as we welcomed back a leader and fellow wanderer after a third hip operation!

We certainly had shine today! A fifty minute drive from home brought us to beautiful Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales. A handy tip is that parking at all Bolton Abbey car parks is free on weekdays between 31st October and 16th March (except for during school holiday weeks). After a short bit of road walking we headed off through fields and woods and up above the Wharfe valley where the views and colours were spectacular.

Eventually our path brought us down to what is called The Strid car park. From here our path followed the River Wharfe along The Dales Way. First though we stopped for our picnic lunch. This just happened to be at a viewpoint from where J.M.W.Turner painted one of his watercolours. An information board explains the fact and shows a copy of his painting. A Turner Trail has been developed in Yorkshire by the Tourist Board and there are accompanying leaflets and a website.

The final part of our walk kept to the higher paths above the river and eventually the romantic ruins of Bolton Priory loomed into view. These were also painted by Turner and the scene has changed very little since 1816 when the artist toured the Yorkshire Dales. Read here about Turner’s Viewpoint at Bolton Abbey and click the links to the resultant pictures.

Queen Mary, 1867-1953, by James Pope-Hennessy

This library book (published in 1959) has been sitting on my table waiting for me to read it for probably two years! It was recommended to me by a dear friend as the perfect biography and so it seems to be. Upon request it was brought up from the depths of the library stacks (by a librarian in overalls and a mask), fumigated  and then issued to me a week later. Upon collection I realised that I would have to choose carefully the appropriate time to read this book. It is just too heavy to carry with me each day to work or when travelling, so when I knew we’d be going down to Devon by car  a couple of weeks ago I decided to take it with me and to give it a go.

There is something else I should explain; earlier this year I began to take a special interest in Edward, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor and I will be writing much more about them in future posts. This year really had to be the year to read Queen Mary.

The 685 page volume is divided into 4 books of which Book One: Princess May is by far the longest. I’ve just finished this part. Princess May was born into a family with a great many hyphenated German names – if you can manage to wade through the first couple of chapters then the story becomes much easier to follow. The biggest surprise to me was that she had been engaged in the first place to George’s elder brother Albert Victor and it was only following his death not long after their engagement that she became betrothed to the then future king.

James Pope-Hennessy was approached in 1955 and invited to undertake the writing of Queen Mary’s biography. He was given access to the whole Royal Archive by Her Majesty the Queen. His notes are meticulous but do not impede the flow of the text. Carefully selected photographs are dispersed throughout the book rather than all bunched together in the middle. When you are just reading about someone or some place you turn the page and there is the relevant photograph.

I’m looking forward to reading more about this woman whose son was the only modern monarch to abdicate the British throne.

We Will Remember Them

Today a Service of Remembrance was held at The Royal Armouries in Leeds. The Regimental Standards were presented and after The Last Post, the Two Minutes Silence and The Reveille the names of the British servicemen and women from Yorkshire and The Yorkshire Regiment to fall in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the names of all the fallen from The Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire since 1966 were read. At the same time wreaths were laid and poppies floated down from the galleries above the main atrium where the service was held.

Ode to Remembrance

from For The Fallen by Lawrence Binyon

They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them

We will remember them

Pass the Postal Book Parcel – Every One a Winner!

Well, the clocks have gone back,  the temperatures have descended, autumn is well and truly here and my travelling is more or less done for the year. I’ve a couple of trips to London due before Christmas but now my thoughts are turning back to the boudoir and I mean to write a bit more about books and reading and more home-based or local topics.

For many years and as many of you know I have been a member of an online book discussion group. It was a brilliant idea and I joined when recovering from a bad bout of ‘flu one new year and have never looked back. Many members have met in person in many different countries. I don’t know if there are many (or even any) other such groups but this one is very special. Besides discussing books in general and some books in particular we often choose a nineteenth century novel – usually one that was originally published in parts – and read this a part at a time over a few weeks or months.

Some Postal Book Group reads – that I also own.

Several years ago we established what is known by us as The Postal Book Group. It works like this: one member volunteers to organise it for the duration of one ’round’ and those who wish to join in send their addresses to that member who makes a list and distributes to the Postal Book Group members. On the 1st of a chosen month everyone sends their own book choice to the next person on the list, along with a notebook explaining why they have selected that particular book and a bit of background information. A few days later all PBG members should have received their first book. You then read the book, comment in the notebook and on the first day two months later send on the book to the next person. The most exciting thing is when the mystery package lands on the doormat with the next book inside! I did drop out one round but I couldn’t wait to re-join as I missed so much the arrival of the mystery book and its notes.

The current Postal Book Group has the most members yet. There are 14 of us. This particular round started in February this year and will run until April 2013 when we should get our own books back complete with everyone’s thoughts written in the notebook. I can’t tell you anything more about the current round as we keep the book titles a secret so that no-one knows which book will arrive next.

Unfortunately I know of two instances where the books have gone astray but they’ve been replaced and as far as I know only one part-filled notebook has been lost for good. As the books even cross continents I do think this is pretty good going. Currently participants live as far apart as the UK – from Somerset to Cumbria – Ireland, Belgium and the USA – from Oregon and California to Massachusetts and Tennessee. I can tell you it is great fun!

The second most exciting thing is getting the book back and reading the comments that readers have made about your own choice! In the last round I sent out Ryzard Kapuscinski’s The Cobra’s Heart. It’s nice and short – less than 100 pages long – we have to fit the postal book in with all our other reading! It was recommended on the Radio 4 programme ‘A Good Read’ in October 2007 and, I’m pleased to say, it was pretty well received.

Here’s an extract from what I wrote in my notebook before sending it on its way :

“Maybe you know lots about Africa already. I’m ashamed to admit that I do not. All of the things Kapuscinski writes about are new to me. Things I had never thought about such as the sudden difference between day and night, about white people who are not from colonial countries, sickness, wizards, and, of course, cobras. … The book is extracted from a fuller version of this Polish journalist’s writings about Africa “The Shadow of the Sun”. I hope you will find something of interest in this little book of travel writing about Africa.”

A River Runs Through It


We have a print hanging on our sitting room wall called River Dart by Terence Millington.

The River Dart at Holne

Devon is one of our favourite holiday destinations and this week we’re staying near the lovely Stannary town of Ashburton. Our cottage is on an estate that borders the beautiful River Dart. There’s a path from our cottage that takes you right down to the swift-flowing river which borders the Holne Chase estate.

The River Dart near New Bridge

This 42 mile long river rises as 2 branches – East and West Dart – in the Okehampton area of Dartmoor.  The two branches join on Dartmoor at Dartmeet and from then on the single river slips past our cottage ‘home’, flows swiftly down under Holne Bridge and then runs parallel with the road and the railway line towards Totnes, from where for the final 8 miles the river is navigable.

At Steamer Quay, Totnes

It was  at Totnes, on a beautiful November morning, that I boarded the Dart Venturer for a gentle cruise down the river to Dartmouth.

Sharpham Vineyard

Not far from Totnes is the Sharpham Estate, an award-winning vineyard that hugs the right-hand bank of the river for about two and a half miles.

We passed three villages: Duncannon, Stoke Gabriel and Dittisham, Agatha Christie’s former home Greenway (above) and Sir Walter Raleigh’s boat-house. As the boat glided through the still waters it was fascinating to look out for wildlife along the banks – we even spotted a seal bobbing in the water. Bird life included egrets, herons, swans, a cormorant, a buzzard and masses of Canada geese.

As we neared Dartmouth (and its opposite neighbour, Kingswear) the river broadens and we watched naval cadets (above) from the nearby Britannia Royal Naval College for Officer Training (below),

and saw empty and forlorn looking boat building yards that had supplied the nation with over 400 craft during the Second World War. Have a hanky ready if you want to watch the following video about the demise of Philip’s.

At Dartmouth we disembarked from the cruise an hour and a quarter later at the only railway station in Britain that has never been served by a railway line. It was built in anticipation of the railway reaching the town but local efforts to prevent it crossing the Dart were successful and in the end the line had to terminate at Kingswear.

The Dart Estuary at Dartmouth